Shutdown forces prison employees in Atwater to work without pay

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comOctober 7, 2013 

— Inmates at the federal penitentiary in Atwater are getting paid for jobs they perform while in prison, despite a partial government shutdown that began a week ago today. But the 387 prison employees responsible for overseeing those high-risk criminals haven’t seen a penny for about a week, according to union officials.

Donald Martin, president of the local American Federation of Government Employees, Local 1242, said the workers – correctional officers, nurses, psychologists and food services staff – have been working without a paycheck since Tuesday.

“It was a shock that they would continue to have us report to work without pay,” Martin said. “Obviously, our prisons can’t close even though our government is.”

Martin said every employee at the Atwater federal prison is considered essential and therefore exceptions to the furlough. But working without pay is causing anxiety among the officers, Martin said, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.

“They have creditors, they have bills to pay and there’s no guarantee the creditors will be understanding about the situation,” Martin said. “They’re fathers, they’re mothers, they have children they want to provide for.”

More than 35,000 federal Bureau of Prisons employees are also working without pay because of the government shutdown, according to statistics from the Department of Justice.

“We’re still here because we have the direct daily inmate contact and we remain committed to the safety and security of both the staff and inmates,” said Kristi Rodriguez, executive assistant and public information officer for the Atwater penitentiary. “We are continuing to hire and staff our correctional officers at 100percent.”

Currently, the Atwater prison is staffed at 99.49percent for correctional services, Rodriguez said, which is about 197 correctional officers. The maximum-security prison is home to about 1,450 inmates.

“We house some of the worst people you can imagine and our job is to keep them behind bars,” Martin said. “We expect Congress to do their job and pass a budget so we can continue to do what we need to do.”

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, voiced frustration on Monday over the “irresponsible” and “misguided” government shutdown.

Costa said there are more than 17,000 federal employees in the 16th District not getting paid for their work.

“I am as frustrated as the correctional workers are, and as upset as my constituents are about this misguided government shutdown,” Costa said. “The bottom line is, we have to have a bipartisan agreement, and this blame game and political posturing has got to end.”

Costa said he’s working with Democrats and Republicans to bring legislation to the Senate this week to end the government shutdown and restore federal workers’ salaries, including retroactive pay.

The back pay would not cover employee vacations and overtime costs, Martin said.

If the government shutdown continues much longer, Martin added, many correctional officers and prison staff could start looking elsewhere for work.

“We’re already hard-pressed for staff,” Martin said. “I think what’s going to end up happening is morale is going to plummet and people are going to end up looking for alternatives for income.”

For Martin, who began his career as a correctional officer in 2011, it’s been difficult to make ends meet without pay.

The father of two young children is the sole provider for his household. His wife is a stay-at-home mom.

“Like my fellow officers, I’m concerned about how I’m going to pay my mortgage and I have bills I need to meet,” Martin said.

“I would say to congressmen, you were sent to D.C. to do a job,” Martin said. “We do our job without question and we expect you to do the same.”

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209)385-2477 or rgiwargis@ mercedsunstar.com.

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